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Iowa immigration raid threatens town stability

Almost 400 workers at a kosher meatpacking plant are detained, and outraged locals fear the economic impact.

May 25, 2008|Antonio Olivo | Chicago Tribune

POSTVILLE, IOWA — The spacious new homes and pristine commercial strip that have transformed this northeastern Iowa town are a testament to the success of Agriprocessors Inc., the nation's largest kosher meatpacking plant and the reason for a thriving local community of Hasidic Jews.

But a federal raid this month that exposed a seemingly tacit agreement between the plant and an illegal-immigrant workforce has residents worried about the town's future.

This community has fashioned itself as a cosmopolitan center on the Plains, where long-bearded rabbis, Latin American immigrants and German Lutherans have learned to live side by side.

But everything changed after the largest immigration raid in U.S. history netted nearly 400 workers -- including 18 juveniles -- at the plant.

"At a time when America is trying to hold on to industries, you know what I see out of this? Kosher chickens coming from China," fumed Rabbi Aaron Goldsmith, a former city councilman who was among many who stood transfixed as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement helicopters and buses raced past the grazing cows toward their town. "These are hardworking families working there. This isn't a place that required helicopters and guns."

The town of 2,600 boasts a kosher deli next to a Guatemalan restaurant and an old-fashioned beauty parlor, along with a reputation for kosher meats known as far away as Israel. Agriprocessors produces about 60% of the kosher meat and 40% of the kosher poultry in the U.S market.

Now many fear that the success that set Postville apart from neighboring towns may soon unravel -- and with it the community's harmony. With local storefronts virtually empty in the days after the raid, residents expressed resentment that the town was targeted in a ramped-up immigration enforcement effort that has similarly affected other small communities in the past year.

The size of the raid has sent shock waves across Iowa, which is among several heartland states that have seen an increasing number of immigrants arriving to work in meatpacking plants and other agricultural factories opening near farms.

After media images spread of the makeshift detention center in Waterloo -- appearing as a high-security prison camp on what are normally festival grounds -- rumors circulated that more raids were coming.

With an investigation still underway, a 57-page federal affidavit cited numerous reasons for the raid that forced officials to process most of those arrested 77 miles away in Waterloo. Officials processed 389 detainees, charging 306 of them with using false Social Security numbers and other forms of illegal documentation.

The affidavit alleged that there was a crystal methamphetamine lab inside the plant, though it did not specify who was running it. Also alleged: One worker's eyes were duct-taped shut and he was clubbed with a meat hook by a supervisor hired to ensure that the chickens, turkeys and lambs were killed according to rabbinical law. The reason was not mentioned.

And, in an arrangement common at many workplaces in the absence of comprehensive federal immigration reform, there were numerous alleged instances in which plant supervisors looked the other way when it appeared that workers arriving from Guatemala, Mexico, and parts of Eastern Europe were carrying false documents.

Nearly 80% of the plant's 970 employees were believed to be using fake IDs, the affidavit said, citing 2007 payroll records that were seized. Undercover sources wearing electronic recording devices were cited in the affidavit as describing instances in which supervisors instructed employees to "fix" their Social Security numbers.

Federal officials have declined to say whether any of the plant's supervisors or owners face criminal charges or penalties. A class-action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of the workers alleging that the company procured fake IDs for employees and that federal officials improperly processed the arrested immigrants.

Agriprocessors officials would not comment. In a statement issued May 15, the company said it had agreed to use federal electronic verification software to better screen the identities of new hires. Since the raid, Agriprocessors has been operating with a skeleton crew, flying in workers from New York, town officials said.

"We are working with experts in immigration compliance to help bolster our compliance efforts to employ only properly documented employees," Chaim Abraham, a company representative, said in the statement. "We extend our heartfelt sympathies to the families whose lives were disrupted and wish them all the best."

In Postville, the fear of more raids has hung heaviest inside St. Bridget Roman Catholic Church.

More than 200 frightened Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants -- mostly the spouses and children of those arrested -- camped out there immediately after the raid, though their numbers have since dwindled.

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